On Writing Imperfect Characters, by Alane Ferguson
Writing for young people is an incredible fit for me, underscored by the fact that my husband just called me an ‘Adult Teenager’! (Okay, so maybe I made up a twist where every time Ron loses at Rumikub, he (or I) has to eat a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Bean, and it’s possible that I laughed until tears streamed down my face when he bit into ‘skunk’!) So there is some truth to the idea that I’ve never completely grown up. Fortunately, my inner-teen gets channeled into Young Adult novels that I love to read as well as write, and that’s important if you want to write for an audience as specific as YA. Additionally, as a YA author, I have the opportunity to teach up-and-coming authors through The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators by way of their workshop classes. When I read through those manuscripts, I see the same problems time and time again. I thought I’d take this month’s post to dish on common mistakes and how you, dear potential writers, can head off some pitfalls as you create your own dynamic worlds!
The first thing I like to remind YA students is that a writer’s job basically mimics creating a movie, only in our world we get to be the writer, director, actor, cinematographer, and, well, you get the idea. A writer’s job is to make the setting tangible to the reader. More importantly, your work must focus on a teen protagonist who reads as a believable, breathing, complex being. That may sound like a straightforward point, but you’d be shocked at how many times I’ve seen an adult channel their thoughts/ideas/morals into their teen character’s point of view, with alarming results. Their characters tend to be wise, pious, respectful young people who beg enlightened adults to rain pearls of wisdom upon their grateful, young heads. Wrong! It not only reads as inauthentic, but no teen will be able to relate to a person who turns to their mom or dad for ‘the answer’. It’s what I call ‘adult-writing-for-teens-fantasy-syndrome’ and it is simply the kiss of death when it comes to storytelling. The teen protagonist is on a journey. He or she must make the climb. Adult characters may help, of course, but a story for a young person must have a nuanced teen at its center, a person who will, at times, make a wrong decision. But isn’t that what happened when we were young? And, if we are honest, isn’t it still happening? It is the realistic parts of ourselves that translates into an interesting character.
My protagonist Cameryn Mahoney is currently pulling up Colorado stakes and moving to Hollywood in order to participate in a reality show. In terms of her future, it’s not the best idea, but it’s an adventure! The wise Dr. Moore warns Cameryn of the danger, but no one can tell my protagonist what to do – she tosses his advice to the wind and goes for it. Remember, a perfect character is perfectly awful. You can’t have light without the dark, and so it is when you create a protagonist. They must have shades of gray in order to keep the character you create relatable.
This gradation of color is of vital importance. (As a rule of thumb, the peripheral characters can and will be less fleshed out, which is fine. Right now I’m honing in on main characters.) When I write from Cameryn’s point of view, I know her foibles as well as her strengths, and I dutifully record her stumbles as well as her triumphs. Here’s one of the ways I illustrate this in my classes: I’ll ask my students to point out the flaws of various, well-known personalities. What, I will ask, is Harry Potter’s character flaw? Invariably, someone will say, ‘His scar.’ No, his scar is his physical imperfection, but his personality flaw is that he refuses to accept help, which is essential to becoming a fully rounded human being. (This from the amazing JK Rowling herself!) Do you see the difference? For those of you who dream of passing from ‘reader’ to ‘creator’, don’t be afraid of writing an imperfect character.